Friday, March 27, 2015

FFB: Knock, Murderer, Knock! - Harriet Rutland

There is nothing more satisfying to a mystery novel addict like me than to chose a book fairly at random and from the first amazing sentence to the final paragraph be thoroughly entertained.  I wanted to read a good old fashioned puzzling whodunit this week after indulging in too many suspense style crime stories. One with a gory murder or two, a weird murder method and enough clues to keep me guessing whodunit to the end. Never did I imagine that the book I chose would deliver on all counts, that it would surpass every expectation and that I would actually figure out the culprit and hit all the proper clues and motivations in coming up with my solution. Every single one!

You couldn't find a more unusual detective novel than Knock, Murderer, Knock! (1938). From it's quasi Shakespearean allusion in the title to the quote lifted from The Pickwick Papers that serves as the novel's epigraph a hardcore mystery fan couldn't ask for a more literate and witty refresher in the genuine traditional mystery. Harriet Rutland in her debut as a mystery writer not only adheres to the tenets of the fair play detective novel she adds her own subversive spin to a motley group of what at first appear to be just another assortment of cliche country house archetypes. Among the large cast of characters are two retired career soldiers, a haughty aristocratic doyenne, a dithery hypochondriac, a lady author of detective novels, one sexy young femme fatale, a variety of servants including maids, housekeeper and chauffeur, a no nonsense police inspector and the mysterious detective consultant who seems to be mucking up the investigation. Not one of them ever descends to the level of cliché.

Rutland gives each one a jab of her satirist's poison pen. Colonel Simcox spends much of his time knitting multicolored socks instead of reminiscing of his old soldier days. He's more interested in mastering his knitting and purling and wondering what do with the green yarn when he needs to work on the blue. Mrs. Dawson, the lady author, who brags of having written three books and is starting on her fourth has not had a single work published though her agents keep promising great offers are in the works. The aristocrat is a big phony whose title comes via her now dead husband, a former grocer who made his money in the flour business and earned a honorary title from his philanthropy once he became wealthy. The hypochondriac claims to be abused at the hands of her cruel nurse but in fact spends much of her day devising ways to cause her own near fatal accidents. Here is the first sentence of the book in which we meet the accident obsessed matron:
Mrs. Napier walked slowly to the middle of the terrace, noted the oncoming car, looked around to make sure that she was fully observed, crossed her legs deliberately, and fell heavily on to the red gravel drive.
The car misses Mrs. Napier, thankfully, but not a soul goes to her aid. They would much rather laugh at her and insult her. Mrs. Napier does this sort of thing every day at the Presteignton Hydro where the novel takes place. Nurse Hawkins begrudgingly goes to pick her up all the while Mrs. Napier complains of bruises and manhandling. Dr. Williams, the director of the resort, wants to murder her. So do a lot of the others. But it's not Mrs. Napier who ends up dead at all. It's the sexy and alluring visitor Miss Blake.

Some deadly looking vintage knitting needles
Appropriately, size 13.
Miss Blake has been turning the heads of all the men and arousing the ire of the women. Her wardrobe is scandalous, her manner brazen, her humor off color. Miss Blake is vivacious and good natured and everything the other women residents at the Hydro are not.  Following the weekly amateur talent night where Miss Blake stood in as piano accompanist for all the singers and became the focus of nearly everyone's attention she is found dead in the lounge. Slumped over in the settee, the maid finds Miss Blake still wearing her slinky evening gown and a knitting needle sticking out of the base of her neck. Someone apparently didn't care for her music. Or her love of life.

Throughout the novel Rutland continually brings up the insidious nature of gossip and the prejudices and bigotry of all the residents at this health resort. It's clear she is having fun ridiculing the small-mindedness of hypocrites but there is something sinister about the way most of the characters are so mean spirited in their hatred for one another.  The atmosphere is one of brooding menace and there is evil at work here amid all the satire. At the Presteignton Hydro the clacking of knitting needles is like the clanging of a death knell.

While Inspector Palk and Mr. Winkley, the mysterious "free lancer" who casually inveigles his way into the murder investigation, are trying to make sense of the murder the killer manages to strike two more times. And each time the murder weapon is a steel knitting needle.


Not much is known about the writer. Olive Shimwell, who wrote under the pseudonym Harriet Rutland, is rather a mystery herself. I attempted to try the magic of internet searching and remarkably discovered that she at one time lived in a house in Ireland that was on the very grounds of a popular Victorian and Edwardian era hydropathic resort (see above illustration of the grounds). It was called St. Ann's and was shut down in the late 1920s. I'm tempted to spend a couple of weeks sending out emails to the locals in Blarney to see if perhaps anyone remembers if the house known as Hillside on St Ann's Hill was part of the hydropathic estate. It seems more than likely. And it really is too much to believe that it is pure coincidence that her first mystery novel is also set at such a health spa.

Sorry to report that this book is yet another one of those ridiculous rarities in the mystery world as the lack of a dust cover on this post will probably signify. After five years of hunting for a copy I finally found one and paid close to $60 for it. There isn't a single copy for sale today.  According to Worldcat.org there are only seven copies in university libraries that subscribe to that library database and about six in British, Scottish and Australian libraries. You may want to try your own local library.

I've reviewed her second novel The Poison Fly Murder, about devilry amongst fly fishing vacationers in Wales, previously on my blog.  It was published under the much better title Bleeding Hooks in the UK. I enjoyed that one as well. Soon her third and last book, Blue Murder, will be reviewed here as well.  Of the three Blue Murder is the most easily found in the US since it was reprinted by the estimable Detective Book Club and it can be found in a three-in-one volume along with The Yellow Violet by Frances Crane and The Gift Horse by Frank Gruber. Should you ever be lucky to come across any of Rutland's mysteries I suggest you grab it.  They're as odd as they come and exceptional mysteries to boot.

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Reading Challenge update:  Golden Age card, space O1 "TBR Pile first lines"

  

14 comments:

  1. John, I have often been "entertained" the way you were with this book except in other genres. I have derived complete satisfaction in a similar manner. I'm not familiar with Olive Shimwell/Harriet Rutland and I hope her books turn up at the book sales and used bookshops I frequent.

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  2. Well, thanks for sharing chum, especially as I suspect too few of us have read this author at all - let's hope it becomes more easily findable.

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  3. I want to read this right now. Sadly, I don't have a copy, Great review, if possibly containing spoilers.

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    1. I will admit that quite a few of my reviews do probably contain spoilers as the rest of the world defines "spoiler". I tend to think of it meaning something that will ruin your reading of the book. Not just revealing too much of the plot. Giving away the ending is a spoiler. Telling you there are three murders in a book is not, IMO. Also, everything I discuss about the characters is told to the reader within the first two chapters. Besides, how you can discuss a mystery novel (or any work of fiction) without going into some detail about the plot or highlighting portions that make the book worthwhile reading? In this case I barely scratch the surface of the intricate plot.

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    2. You're right, of course, John, that's why I said POSSIBLY containing spoilers. Certainly information given up front or early can be shared, as can be things like setting, time frames, and so on. You're very good about finding the balance between discussion and revealing too much.

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  4. Sounds interesting. I'm trying to read more classics.

    /Avy

    http://mymotherfuckedmickjagger.blogspot.com

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  5. John, I'm delighted with your entry for the "First lines" category (I think you're the first to tackle that one). I'd be even more delighted if I thought I'd ever stumble across this one in my bookshop wanderings. It sounds really, really good.

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  6. Very interesting. I've just bagged a copy of this one, and hope to read it myself before long.

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    1. Well done, Martin! You always impress me with your secret bookseller connections. I'm sure you'll enjoy this one.

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  7. Oh thanks for first making me want to read a book and then telling me I can't unless i want to pay 60 bucks and even then. Jeez. But it seems to me I've said that before. Ha.

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  8. Good news, the Rutland books are being reprinted.

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  9. Great review, Rutland definitely sounds like a author I want to try. I've heard that in November Dean Street Press will be reprinting three of her novels so getting a hold of one of her books thankfully won't be so tricky.

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    1. Yes, those three will be reprinted next month. Very exciting! She wrote just the three mystery novels and then apparently stopped writing altogether. I'm eager to read what Curt Evans dug up about Olive Shimwell. All I managed to find out was that she lived in Ireland most of her life and her house was on the grounds of an old spa as I mentioned above.

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